Your Child's Brain in Week 63
As you already know, learning language involves much more than a child simply mimicking words. You've watched your little one go through the stages of babbling, first words, and pointing. And as you may recall from his earlier months, categorizing—the ability to group items by their characteristics—is another skill your toddler has grasped by now. It's no wonder, then, that when your child hears a new word, he naturally seeks to put it into a category and considers its relationship to words he already knows.
What the Research Shows
Researchers showed 12- to 14-month-old children four different toys from a given category (such as animals). They allowed the children to play with each toy, one at a time. In some of the test situations, a researcher referred to the grouping as "blickets" or described the group as being "blickish." (The researchers made up a word to control for the possibility that some of the children might already be familiar with the word "animal" while others were not. They wanted the category name to be new to all the children.) In other test situations, the researchers did not use a made-up word; instead, they said only, "See what I have?"
After this familiarization period, the researchers presented the toddlers with both a new member of the now-familiar category and an object from a novel one (such as fruit), but didn't say anything.
Amazingly, most of the children who had been given a word for the initial category automatically put the new member with the animals/blickets, but they didn't know where to group the fruit. Likewise, the children who hadn't been given a word for the category (that is, their groupings weren't described as "blickish" or anything at all), continued to perceive the new group member as a disparate entity along with the piece of fruit. Those children didn't put the new animal alongside the other animals/blickets, but instead left it out of the group along with the piece of fruit.
So what does this tell us? New words definitely can encourage children to compare the objects around them and thereby discover the common features among objects in a category.